ACLU Awards Prestigious Medal of Liberty to Japanese Americans Who Challenged Internment During WWII

June 13, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it will bestow its prestigious 2001 Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty award upon Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, two Americans who challenged the United States government’s evacuation and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Medal of Liberty award, which the ACLU presents every two years, honors individuals who have made lifetime contributions to the advancement of civil liberties. The medal, named for ACLU founder Roger N. Baldwin, comes with a cash award of $25,000, which Mr. Hirabayashi and Mr. Korematsu will share.

The two men will receive their award on June 15, 2001, at a special ceremony held during the ACLU’s Biennial Conference in Miami, Florida.

“I am delighted that the Medal of Liberty award will be presented jointly to Mr. Hirabayashi and Mr. Korematsu, who have spent a lifetime trying to right the same historical wrong,” said Nadine Strossen, President of the ACLU. “These two men bravely stood up for their rights and the rights of others, when many people were too frightened or full of hate to challenge a government they knew was wrong. They are true American heroes.”

American-born Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi was a senior at the University of Washington in 1942 when he learned that the U.S. government was requiring that all Japanese Americans report to internment camps for the duration of the war. Mr. Hirabayashi intended to join his family at a Northern California camp, but when the day came he decided instead to make a political statement by defying the order.

Instead of boarding a bus headed to the internment camp, Hirabayashi turned himself in to the FBI, where he explained his act of civil disobedience. The FBI arrested Hirabayashi for defying the curfew put in place for Japanese Americans and for failing to report to a control station for internment.

With the help of the ACLU, Mr. Hirabayashi challenged the internment order in the courts. His case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government’s internment of Japanese Americans was constitutional.

Forty years later, however, a federal appeals court reversed Hirabayashi’s conviction.

Fred Korematsu was a 22-year-old shipyard welder living in Oakland, California when the executive order forcing the evacuation of Japanese Americans from their homes and into internment camps was announced.

He was eager to help with the war effort by putting his welding skills to use. But he felt, as Hirabayashi did, that the internment was wrong, and decided to defy the order.

Mr. Korematsu went to great lengths to evade the authorities. He changed his job and even had his eyes cosmetically altered. Nevertheless, he was eventually apprehended and put in jail. The next morning the headlines of the local newspapers called him a “Jap Spy.”

Upon reading of the arrest, Edward Besig, then Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California, visited Mr. Korematsu and offered the help of the ACLU. However, Mr. Korematsu was convicted of violating the internment order and sentenced to five years probation.

His case also came before the Supreme Court, which came to the same conclusion it had with Mr. Hirabayashi. Mr. Korematsu was forced to join his family at Tranforan, a holding facility for Japanese Americans on their way to internment camps.

Mr. Korematsu’s case was presented again in federal court in 1983. This time, the court correctly decided that the U.S. government had no substantial basis to intern its citizens of Japanese descent.

Mr. Hirabayashi and Mr. Korematsu have spoken before numerous audiences about the injustices that they and 120,000 other Americans faced during WWII. Both men have been honored by various organizations for their commitment to civil liberties.

A third challenger to the internment camps, Minoru Yasui of Portland, Oregon died in 1986. Like Mr. Hirobayashi, he purposely invited arrest in order to challenge the constitutionality of the military curfew. At the time, he was a law school graduate and was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves.

After his arrest, Mr. Yasui spent time in both internment camps and jail. Upon his release, he moved to Denver, where he lived and practiced law from 1946 to 1967. In 1983, the ACLU of Oregon honored Mr. Yasui with its MacNaughton Civil Liberties Award.

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